Urgent ‘West Side Story’ Update Is For Lovers, America in 2020
The irrational, all-consuming love shared by Tony and Maria, the ill-fated lovers at the heart ofWest Side Story, may be matched only by the passion 63 years of theatergoers and thousands of high school thespians —myself included— have for the musical. Director Ivo Van Hove’s shocking, sensational new production, which opened Thursday night at the Broadway Theatre, reignites the flame celebrating all that’s holy about this sacred piece of Americana, and delivering a bracing update to the racial underpinnings. Van Hove, a Belgian known for his Spartan stagings of Broadway classics like his Tony-winning take onA View From the Bridge, and his integration of live video projection see last season’s flawed but topicalNetwork, employs both techniques here. Take the opening: there’s no dance, just tattooed bodies in streetware, a line of faces mean-mugs the audience, mirrored in extreme close-up on an enormous screen that’d put the Meadowlands Jumbrotron to shame. They’re the faces of the Latinx Sharks (it’s 2020 so they’re not just Puerto Rican anymore) and the multi-racial Jets (not just Polish—heck, not even just white—anymore). Van Hove’s cameramen capture details— cell phones, ATMs, gender-fluid costuming— and whole scenes, like those in Maria’s bridal shop and bedroom, which are staged either partially or totally out of the audience’s view. So is this a stage play at all? Or a movie? Or worse… a live TV musical? It’s a unique piece with rattling immediacy and proximity. Doc’s, the fictitious malt shop where the gangs negotiate their deadly rumble, could be a bodega right around the corner. Other times, pre-recorded content supplements scenes. The resulting dialectics are mixed. A police brutality vignette during “Gee, Officer Krupke” smartly transforms the juvenile justice satire into a Black Lives Matter statement, but, during “America,” a PowerPoint slideshow of Manhattan rooftops and border walls distracts. The production owes its svelte 1 hour, 45-minute runtime— there’s no intermission— to Van Hove’s axing of two numbers: “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the only surviving member of the original creative team, endorsed the excisions, citing his longstanding conviction that “I Feel Pretty” is an inauthentically cute song for a young immigrant anyways. There’s no time for cute in this production— the characters simply don’t have that luxury. But otherwise, Van Hove wisely leaves Leonard Bernstein’s score intact, the tunes played just how you remember them, by Alexander Gemignani’s 25-piece orchestra. These cuts, coupled with Van Hove’s probing, dynamic video, create urgent momentum, hurtling the lovers towards destiny, and emphasizing the movie-like qualities of Arthur Laurents’ book. Like me, you may forget you ever giggled at gyrating gangsters. Surely it’s the most thrillingWest Side Storymost will have ever seen, and that’s counting the 1961 silver screen adaptation by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. On the subject of Robbins, his original twirling, finger-snapping choreography is so synonymous with the musical, that he’s still billed right below the title. In her Broadway debut, choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker isn’t as deconstructive of Robbins steps as one might expect. If Robbins emphasized the horizontal—arms, legs outstretched— De Keersmaeker finds inspiration in the vertical, the dancers sometimes tall and loping, other times primal, crawling on the floor. A hormonal, frenzied “Dance at the Gym” and bloody, rainy rumble are highlights. Oh, and to execute Van Hove and De Keersmaeker’s visions, there’s a cast of 50. 33 of them make their Broadway debut, which is to say they’re refreshingly age-appropriate and authentic in their zeal. Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel play Tony and Maria, the two youngsters on opposite sides of the gangland turf war they don’t much care for. With Powell sidelined by a show-related injury, Jordan Dobson played Tony at the reviewed performance. Dobson and Pimentel’s voices meet the task of singing the score— really no one’s not a triple threat in this production— and are especially tender in their aching dialogue. In “Tonight,” they run ellipticals around each other, orbiting like planets. Who hasn’t known an adolescent affair that made you shine as bright as the astral imagery of Sondheim’s lyrics? Tony and Maria’s encounter escalates tensions between Tony’s compadre Riff (Dharon E. Jones), played at the reviewed performance by Ben Cook, who then got sidelined with—wait for it—an onstage injury, and Bernardo, the ranking Shark played with husky menace by Amar Ramasar. Ramasar is… not sidelined, this despite ongoing protests over his alleged participation in an illicit exchange of nude photographs among New York City Ballet dancers. Indeed, the off-stage troubles of thisWest Side Storyseem primed to become as much of a part of Broadway lore as the musical itself. As Bernardo’s lover Anita, Yesenia Ayala spits less fire than her forebears in the role but consequently positions herself better as the audience’s emotional center. The body count rises, police start knocking on doors, and, in Maria’s final monologue, the potent Pimentel, as cocked as the pistol she’s holding, puts the audience in her crosshairs. It’s an uneasy warning and demand for self-reflection. Steven Spielberg’s unrelatedWest Side Storyremake, due in cinemas this Christmas, retains the original 1950s setting. I suspect many will wish he had adapted this version instead. Famously, that 1957 original took Shakespeare’sRomeo and Julietand turned the Bard’s balcony into a fire escape. You’ll find neither set piece here. Instead, in Van Hove’s most tragic tableau, the other Sharks and Jets take the stage in that moment for a cosmic tug-of-war, attempting to wrest the doomed pair apart. They are the external forces and prejudices that make hate so easy, yanking all of us away from love. Love for another person. Love for a musical. Love that, in Tony and Maria’s simple words, would transform this mere world into a star.